One night, we'd made camp," says Tom. "The cattle were below -- you always camp above them in case of a stampede -- and I felt Kipper's wet nose, nuzzling me. He wouldn't stop. He whinnied a bit. He knew something was going to happen."
Tom pauses to take a mouthful of our lamb sandwich. His white beard bends in the breeze like Charlton Heston's whiskers when he was Moses parting the Red Sea.
"And you know what? That horse was right. I was just getting up when the stampede started. All hell broke loose. I think it was probably coyotes...Boy. This is about the best sandwich I ever had."
We're sitting out on the patio of the European Market & Deli on Park near Polk. I'd passed Tom by when I was scurrying along in my late-as-usual trot. He was using a walker. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.
A couple of blocks on I stopped at a nice coffee garden next to a vintage dress shop called, uh, "Frock You!" Except I was hungry for lunch and they only had muffins. So I kept on. Farther ahead, I saw some green umbrellas, and, as I got closer, a red awning and potted trees and tables. A sandwich board read, "Pastries. Olives. Wine. Cheese." Sounded good.
Inside, they had half a dozen tables, copper pans on the wall, grapes painted around the top edge, near the ceiling, framed pictures of Paris cafes. But was basically Greek, with cases of Greek wines, coolers with feta cheeses, and behind the counter, two Greek ladies, Sophie and Kathy, bustling to keep a line of customers moving.
I picked up the yellow menu. "Legendary Old World dining and market," said the front page. "Recognized as the best lamb in San Diego." Boy, lamb. Love it.
The menu's inside pages had things like gyros for $4.99, an interesting-sounding "Veggie Diabolou" pita sandwich, "a hot and spicy way to eat your vegetables," for $4.89, a large Greek salad for $4.99, roasted chicken salad ($5.99), and a ground-beef moussaka for $6.55.
I asked Sophie which was the most popular. "No question," she said. "The lemon-roasted chicken." She pointed to the roaster behind her. Lemony, chickeny aromas wafted out. "You should try it."
The chicken did smell good, but no. Lamb wins any time. A lot of folk don't like it, but for me, lamb defines a real baa-BQ, as you might say. Trouble was, this was Thursday. Big lamb days are Friday and Saturday. That's when they serve "Paul's Lamb Special, $8.85." I never did learn who this Paul is, but the plate of lamb is roasted in his "savory blend of spices," with "lemon-roasted potatoes, Greek side-salad and warm pita bread."
Dang it. I was going to miss out. But then I saw they had an everyday lamb sandwich for $5.99. So I ordered that. And 'cause I never broke fast this mawnin', I added "lemon-roasted potatoes" (90 cents extra) and Greek chicken soup, with, yeah, lemon, and egg, and rice ($2.95). And a scoop of Kalamata olives ($1.17). Oh, and I made the other greatest decision du jour, a Greek coffee ($2.00).
So it was quite a package that Sophie brought out to the patio table under the umbrella. First thrill was that coffee. Yes, I put a pink packet of white powder in it, so no purist here. But it was thick, rich, dee-lish. The bottom half was sludge, but that's part of the charm. Chicken and rice soup was good too, but the second big thrill was those lemon potatoes. Oh Lord. Giant chunks, absolutely oozily good. I'da come for those alone. Nicely done lamb too -- 'specially with a big splot of Tzatziki sauce.
Well, I'm sitting there in the sunny breeze, when I hear this shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. It's Tom, finally catching up. "Tortoise and hare," I say. We get to talking. He ends up sitting down with me, and heck, my eyes were bigger than my stomach, so we split the lamb sandwich. Turns out Tom's just out of the hospital -- car hit him -- and is homeless right now. "Actually, people want me to settle down, but I just keep moving," he says. Says that's because he started life under Wyoming's big sky. He worked as a ranch hand. A true-blue cowboy.
Oh man. He has lots of stories. The stampede, the day Kipper, his favorite horse, died -- we're both teary with that one -- bronco-riding, and his hero, Jesse James. (Funny, 'cause last week, I sat at Jesse James' bar.)
"He was our Robin Hood!" says Tom. "He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. And then that rat Robert Ford, from his own gang, shot him. From behind."
And he bursts out into song.
"Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children, they were brave;
But the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid Jesse James in his grave."
I take my last slurp of Greek coffee. Tom folds up his Styrofoam plate. "I tell you honestly," he said. "I was hungry. But I truly think it's the best sandwich I've had in my entire life."
"So who was Mr. Howard?" I ask.
"That was Jesse. He hid out as Mr. Howard." He starts singing again, in fine voice.
"It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he does feel,
For he ate of Jesse's bread and he slept in Jesse's bed,
Then he laid poor Jesse in his grave."
"Maybe if Jesse'd given him better bread," I say, "like in this lamb sandwich, he wouldn't've done it?" "Maybe you're right," Tom says. "How could you shoot anyone with your belly full like this?" Then he goes right back to singing.
"It was Robert Ford..."